Tuesday, November 18, 2014

#G20Brisbane WTF?

Some of my international and interstate friends were disappointed by the lack of civil disobedience in protest actions surrounding the recent Brisbane G20 meeting. So as a Gold Coaster (an hour south) who has helped organise a few minor protests in Brisbane, I thought I would post a bit of a G20 review with some personal commentary on the Brisbane protest scene and Australian non-violent action in general.

To The Islands?

First question: given how much financial expense and social disruption they cause, why are meetings like the G20 held in large cities like Brisbane (population 2.1 million)? Why not hold them on small islands instead? Well, as one perceptive follower tweeted me: "where's the show of force in that?"

It would of course be much easier and cheaper for meetings like the G20 to be held on small islands, and QLD has loads of suitable offerings. But that would expose our leaders' PR talk-fests for the elitist exercises they are. So instead, they shut down large cities, cause maximum impact to citizens' lives and ensure global media headlines. Because they can.

This is of course just another manifestation of the cynical Politics Of Fear, which now has an iron grip on Western nations. Big global events like this generate billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded profits for the military and security forces, so no expense is spared "protecting" citizens (and our so-called "leaders") from any and all "possible" threats - that is, from over-hyped enemies that our politicians and military themselves have helped create.

Check the video below. If civilian "terrorists" threatened innocent local lives like this, they would be arrested. But this dangerously stupid helicopter landing barely caused a ripple of pre-G20 news. The elites live by different rules.

At the time, Brisbane motorways were already jamming up as locals tried to leave the city. The CBD soon became a ghost town.

The climate of fear in Brisbane had been brewing for many months, if not years, with local politicians imposing draconian new laws, and rounding up suspects (Islamic, of course) in huge police raids. The Queensland Premier's Orwellian "anti-bikie" laws were still in place, and somehow survived a High Court challenge on the eve of the G20. Meanwhile, the federal Attorney General was pushing the same rabid fear-mongering at a national level. Activists were well aware that any unwanted G20 dissent, no matter how justified and (in other times) legal, would bring the weight of these dystopian new laws down on their heads.
So Why Bother?

Personally, having previously spent months trying to organise large-scale Brisbane protests for Assange, Manning and WikiLeaks - and sometimes finding myself alone in the middle of the city with a mask and a sign - I thought the best reaction to the Brisbane G20 might be a full-scale activist boycott. Why play their game, by their rules, on their chosen ground, when they have such ridiculously massive resources ready to rain down upon our heads? Why not use guerrilla tactics and protest elsewhere instead? Why not expose their wasted public "security" funding by taking away media opportunities to further demonize the usual suspects?

But of course, that would be exactly what they want, right? Besides, protest groups were on their way from around the world - and who wants to rain on that parade?

So I felt guilty for not being more fired up, but I also felt jaded by my Brisbane protest experiences. I decided to just watch, see what happened, and help out where and when I could.

The Peoples Summit

A wonderful lady from Friends Of The Earth, Robin Tauberfeld, was at the heart of the counter-G20 Peoples Summit. There were many inspiring events organised around the city for days leading up to the G20. Things kicked off on Wednesday, as the coming heatwave was just beginning to build. I decided to go take a look the next day.

With my friend @muzzray, I had a quick look around a bunch of Peoples Summit venues in the West End. There were two dozen people quietly discussing "Carbon Violence" at the Uniting Church, a dozen people getting ready for a food handout evening at the Media Center, about 50 people quietly listening to a talk on "Greek Austerity And Australian Solidarity" at another venue, and another dozen quietly listening to a talk about Free Trade politics in the Pacific Islands. All good informative stuff, but all very quiet too. Certainly nothing that posed an immediate threat to the Security State.

I went back to the West End and bumped into Ciaron O'Reilly, a friend who had helped organise many protests for Assange, WikiLeaks and Manning. Ciaron has been a Brisbane activist since the horrific Joh Bjelke-Peterson days of the 1970s and 80s, when protestors were regularly and cruelly bludgeoned by cops. While the cops are less aggro nowadays, some argue that Queensland has never really recovered from the right-wing Police State that Joh built.

Ciaron told me that he had just been legally banned from entering the G20 zone. Over a dozen cops had surrounded him before some plain-clothes cops stepped forward to serve him a legal notice. Ciaron was formally declared a "Person Of Interest", but the reason was unclear. Perhaps because a year earlier he had successfully stuck an Assange/Manning protest sign in the windscreen of a car carrying US Secretary of State John Kerry in London? Or could it be that time he helped disarm a US B52 bomber? Or maybe it was just his long history of peaceful protest activism.

Anyway, I tweeted pics while Ciaron did half a dozen media interviews. Journos seemed happy to have a story to run with - in truth, there was not much other excitement for them in town. Then just as we sat down with @muzzray to have a beer, who should come past but Sam Castro from the Melbourne activist group @akawaca. I hadn't seen Sam since the epic farce of the @WikiLeaksParty, which had left many of us badly bruised, and it was heart-warming to finally see her again.

In fact, Ciaron had just been asking my opinion about the Great WikiLeaks Party Fiasco, and I was telling him that @akawaca had been unfairly scape-goated by @WikiLeaks. So when Sam showed up, Ciaron generously said he apologized to her if his own criticism had been too harsh. We all had a beer and that was that.

I mention this episode only because maybe it illustrates how and why the limited number of activists around Australia do not work together more efficiently. In a big country where interstate meet-ups are rare (never mind timezones like London) a major fiasco like the WikiLeaks Party can have long-ranging repercussions. Smaller local groups seem to work more effectively: think global, act local, right?

But back to the G20... Of course there were plenty of other G20 protests going on around town, independent of the Peoples Summit.

Every group seemed to have organized police permits in advance and was staying inside their designated police zones. This sort of thing comes naturally in a Nanny State country where you cannot do anything without government permission: Australians today need to complete government-approved courses just to work in a bar, a kindergarten or a football club. So the police overkill around the Brisbane G20 was not particularly abnormal. The same day Ciaron was banned, a 21-year-old Queenslander was charged for using Facebook to threaten US President Barack Obama. Nobody blinked.

Friday kicked off with a march against Aboriginal deaths in police custody. It was a peaceful march which got good media coverage. Protestors noted the excessive presence of cops, who lined both sides of the march all the way.

This was the day of the main protest march but I was still tossing up whether to go. It was damned hot and I knew from experience exactly what to expect. But if I didn't go, I would feel guilty. You gotta walk the talk, right? I went to the train station and crossed the road in the scorching heat, then decided to go home and spend the day tweeting about the G20 instead. Not only would it be cooler, but I seriously thought it would be a more effective use of my time. Each as best we can, right?

The brave protestors were doing their best in the scorching conditions, of course, but the Queensland Police were running the show exactly as planned. The route stayed well away from official activities, journalists were barely within shouting distance of protestors, and visiting dignitaries barely even saw them.
That tweet above says it all: protestors in the USA have more freedom of speech than those of us in a US Client State like Australia. While the G20 protestors messages may have reached other audiences loud and clear, Obama and his Washington press pack hacks apparently never even saw them.

In situations like this, the only remedy is civil disobedience. Enter Ciaron O'Reilly again... 
Ciaron, who had not cut his hair since 1988 - the last time he was in Brisbane's Boggo Road jail - knew he would be arrested but went ahead and crossed the police lines anyway. As they put him into the van he shouted: "Free Julian Assange! Free Chelsea Manning! Free Edward Snowden!"

It was a message that was heard loud and clear across the Internet and on Australian TV news bulletins that night. But Ciaron spent the next 2 nights locked up, until the G20 leaders left town. He's now out on bail, awaiting hearing on December 4th.

The @akawaca group of "Climate Angels", featuring Guardian journalist @vanbadham, were also keen to test police boundaries. After a refreshing dip in Brisbane's fake riverside beach, they held a sit-down protest outside the South Bank venue where dignitaries were meeting. 
The Climate Angels refused to move until Prime Minister Tony Abbott came out and listened to them. Instead they got a short visit from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who was happy to promote their anti-government climate stance. The Angels held their position, gaining considerable online and media attention, until Abbott quietly sneaked out another exit.

The police then generously offered the Climate Angels a ride, either to a pub or back to their hotels. Van Badham later praised this as a sign that the bad old days of Bjelke Peterson were gone for good, and local media celebrated it as a "typically Aussie resolution to a standoff".

But I couldn't help wondering if Ciaron O'Reilly, sleeping two nights in a police cell, would agree. Fascism with a friendly face is still Fascism. In the end, Ciaron was the only activist taken to a purpose-built Brisbane G20 courthouse, designed to hold up to 500 arrested protestors. Nobody else challenged the power of the State as directly.

Economic Cost & Benefits

The major story surrounding the Brisbane G20 was the long-awaited US-China agreement to limit carbon pollution. But this deal was actually finalised at the end of the APEC meeting in Beijing a week earlier.
In Australia, many applauded Obama's diplomatic humiliation of our Climate Denialist Prime Minister, who had previously insisted that Climate Change would be off the G20 agenda. Abbott further embarrassed himself with an opening speech to world leaders where he complained about his difficulties passing petty domestic legislation, including university fee deregulation and obligatory $7 fees for GP visits. When the G20 was over, his polls showed no improvement: instead, he is now facing leadership speculation rumours.

#G20Brisbane is generally estimated to have cost taxpayers "over $400 million", although firm estimates are difficult to obtain. The security spending alone was "well over $100m", including some high-tech resources that the QLD police will keep permanently (CCTVs, control room, riot gear etc). Cops were paid to come from interstate and even New Zealand. Multiple government agencies spent months planning and preparing, so I would not be surprised if the real figure is well over $1 billion (this at a time when both QLD state and Canberra federal govts are playing the "austerity" card to slash spending on social programs, ABC news, etc).

There was also a huge economic cost to many local businesses, as locals panicked by media reports and political fear-mongering decided to just leave town en masse. Which tells you a lot about Brisbane's 2.1 million inhabitants: either they don't realise that working class citizens around the globe are being screwed by the G20 elites, or they don't care enough to protest. As I had already learned from experience.

The Indian Prime Minister unveiled a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Brisbane, and a few days later the Queensland government announced that it would use taxpayer money to help fund an Indian company's massive new coal mine - Adani's Carmichael mine will be among the biggest in the world - after international banks had refused to support it.

Meanwhile the USA, Japan and Canada announced billions of dollars support for a Green Climate Fund, which Abbott had ridiculed.
27 people were excluded from G20 security zones and 14 were arrested during the summit and in the lead up. Most face minor charges such as failing to state their name and address. Queensland Police boasted that this meeting "set a new template" for G20 meetings around the world. We shall see.

Bottom line

Brisbane is a politically apathetic city, where high living standards help ensure wide-scale indifference to issues of social justice. This is sadly typical of Australia today and is not likely to change unless the "Lucky Country" takes a massive economic nose-dive.

G20 observers may have been fooled by "Brisvegas" promoting itself as a global capital, but in fact it is just an over-sized country town where Rupert Murdoch owns nearly all the newspapers and endemic political/business corruption is quietly accepted with a shrug.

With all due respect to everyone who came and made their voices heard - particularly Ciaron and the @akawaca team - if bums on seats & feets on streets are the currency of change, then the G20 illustrates that Australian "Leftists / progressives" (I hate labels) have a long way to go. Particularly in hot, sleepy Queensland.